Re: Ethics

Eric Watt Forste (
Tue, 17 Dec 1996 11:49:40 -0800

Guru George wrote:
>Why do libertarians generally feel the need to dress up empathy as
>somehow selfish? Surely it is just what it seems: concern for
>others, pure and simple.

Hardly anything is ever just what it seems, particularly where
human psychology is concerned. But to answer your question: there
are many reasons, of which I can explain two. First of all, many
libertarians find nothing wrong with selfishness; when they "dress
up" empathy as "somehow" selfish, this is how they *praise* empathy
when addressing ethical egoists. I do this all the time.

Secondly, many libertarians have the misfortune to come out of
environments in which they were surrounded by greedy, selfish,
parasitic human beings using demands on their "compassion", "empathy",
and "altruism" as a means of extorting their property, and sometimes
their very lifeblood and spirit, out of them. This is the case of
Ayn Rand, whose family's situation was destroyed in the course of
the Russian Revolution in the name of "compassion for the working

For my own part, I would like to see the old tired dichotomy between
egoism and altruism pass away from moral discourse. Any attempt to
be consistent about either one immediately passes into a muddle of
performative contradictions. The genealogical fact is that each
and every one of my values, considered as a value, as a motivating
information structure in my brain, was learned (or perhaps inherited?)
by me from other human beings. *Not* learned by me from studying
physical reality: the study of physical reality can inform, can
produce new knowledge, and can motivate if given a context of
preexisting values, but without a context of preexisting values,
knowledge of physical reality does not motivate. Given that all my
values have their origin in other human beings, it would be ridiculous
for me to be insensitive to the presence of my deepest values within
the minds of other people that I meet, and given that *my* most
basic value is a simple joy and delight in Life... well, perhaps
I have an unfair advantage in the compassion department.

So: my values come from others. But they're my values now, and what I
do with them, what I transform them into, and how I give expression to
them through my body-mind... as far as I'm concerned, that is the task
at hand. I have no big answers nor any moral guidance to offer (in fact
let me say this: don't trust me. Think for yourself.) but this is what
I've come up with so far.

Oh, yeah, here's a remark that's been floating around in my head lately,
and now seems like an appropriate time to launch it. If you've been
listening all your life to people who keep telling you to think about
Reality, to face Reality, etc, it's good to keep in mind that Reality
includes the contents of other people's heads. "Downward causality"
is empty eristic; the causality of rhetoric and psychology and culture
is exactly the same kind of physical causality we know in other kinds
of phenomena in the world. It's just that once a causal chain enters a
human brain, you can forget about tracing it any further. You have to
deal with that person as an independent agent. Some people can
occasionally deceive themselves that this is not the case; one time
honored method is to associate exclusively with one's intellectual
inferiors so that one can use mind control on them. The fatal cost
involved in this is the gradual erosion of the practitioner's
mental skills as they become increasingly specialized in the study of the
psychology of people who really have nothing of value to offer them.
What I am describing, of course, is the psychology of the petty tyrant.
We see these people all around us: secretive, sneaky, proud of their
power, manipulative, and all of them, every last one, gradually growing
weaker and stupider as a result of their practice.

Fortunately, it is possible to change one's stripes.

Eric Watt Forste ++ ++